Professors discuss future of e-readers, books

By John Manganaro

The future of the written word came under scrutiny last night in room G-24 of the Cathedral… The future of the written word came under scrutiny last night in room G-24 of the Cathedral of Learning.

There, essayist Sven Birkerts and blogger Maud Newton participated in a forum titled “The Future of the Book.” The two discussed electronic reading technology, like Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader, and what impact such devices could have on Pitt and the major publishing companies.

Birkerts wore a demure tweed jacket, putting him in stark contrast with Newton and her fire engine red dress. Both argued the movement into electronic media is equally positive and negative — though Birkerts’ comments had a distinctly apocalyptic flavor.

“If I have a reputation in the writing world, it is that of a Luddite,” Birkerts said. “Solitude, subjectivity, focus and the cultural novel are being destroyed by the myriad screen tools we all depend on … I see these e-readers as a kind of gateway drug. Individuality and meditation are at stake.”

In anticipation of this discussion, English professor Jeff Oaks explored the pros and cons of electronic readers. Every flat surface was covered by books stacked five deep.

Oaks doesn’t own an e-reader, but he frequently uses the Kindle application on his phone. He sat back at his desk, at ease among the scholarly splendor.

“I bought the Kindle application immediately after I went for the iPhone,” Oaks said. “I was all giddy, like ‘Oh my God,’ I have access to all of literature on here.’ That’s the appeal of the e-readers, you can have so much at your fingertips.”

In a time dominated by the Internet and cable television — where audiences can navigate thousands of channels and millions of web pages — the appeal of reading often gets overlooked, Oaks said. But when you factor in an e-reader’s ability to receive e-mails and even daily newspapers, the written word might once again be able to compete.

Oaks adjusted his glasses and sat up in his chair, hefting an ancient-looking volume of Chinese poetry.

“Only the book as an artifact is in trouble,” Oaks said, thumbing through the pages. “If a book were only words we would have no issue making the transition to e-readers. But a book is also the cover art, the weight, the turning of pages.”

Hours later, in a slightly less-cluttered office in the Writing Center, English professor Geeta Kathari mostly agreed with Oaks.

Flanked on one side by a Mac and iPhone, complete with e-reader application , and on the other by several shelves of books, Kathari also speculated about the future of the written word.

“It’s the turning of pages thing that makes the transition seem so dramatic,” Kathari said. “Right now I’m reading a digital copy of ‘The Nether World’ by George Gissing, and it’s pretty great. I can carry a 400-page novel in my pocket, one I can’t even find in print.”

Scrolling through the digital pages, Kathari said she can see e-readers catching on as an attractive option for travelers, or those who don’t have the space for a decent library.

Molly Stieber, a Pitt student and Student Government Board member, seems wise to the professors’ predictions. She is working on a project to educate policy-making University officials about electronic textbooks.

Stieber wants Pitt to get on board with a company called Jumpbooks, a digital textbook aggregate which works with some of today’s largest book publishing companies.

Jumpbooks deals books in a totally different way from a campus bookstore, she said, similar to textbook renting.

With the bookstore, students typically purchase a printed book at a new or lightly used price and then hope to sell it back to get a fractional return. But with Jumpbooks, the buyer purchases a 180-day subscription to an electronic textbook that can be downloaded directly to a laptop, usually for less than half the cost.

Stieber warned of the dramatic consequences facing Pitt if the University ignores electronic textbooks.

“If Pitt waits much longer to cut a deal to work with Jumpbooks they risk losing textbook revenues all together,” Stieber said. “When students turn away from the bookstore to outside electronic textbook vendors, as they will when they can pay $99 for a textbook that would normally cost $230, the University will fall out of the market.”

No one from the University Book Center was available for comment about the issue of e-textbooks yesterday, but Stieber said she thinks the trend is a sign.

“If 14 of the biggest printed-book publishing companies are moving into e-textbooks and e-books, isn’t that a good indicator that Pitt should too?” she asked. “Who knows the future of books better than the publishing companies?”